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Cincinnati, Ohio — Wednesday May 9, Gonzeaux #3

After one of the prettiest drives you can imagine through southern Indiana east into Ohio, I find myself this morning in the very urban, once blighted, “Over-The-Rhine” neighbourhood of Cincinnati. This is clearly an Ohio innovation success story, in more ways than one. I would not have predicted it. I nearly lost my life here.

Flashback 1974: I’m driving my beater 1960 Dodge Valiant through this neighbourhood with my dog Peaches sleeping in the back seat. It’s early evening and stopped at a red light, the Valiant stalls. It won’t start back up. I manage to push the car over to the curb. Before I can blink I’m surrounded by 5 guys. I see the flash of metal in hand. I’m young, fit, big, full of anger, and with a bouncer’s skills — but not ready to take on this crew. They move in for the kill. Peaches, an athletic Malamut-Golden Retriever mix, smells trouble and jumps out of the open back window onto the pavement, growls viciously and bares an impressive and wolfish mouth of teeth. “Easy Peaches” I say, grabbing her collar, and the boys say the same, “yeah, easy Peach, nothin wrong”. The boys back off as I “hold back” that sweet protective dog of mine. Peaches probably saved me a beating, or worse. In 1974 travelling through Over-the-Rhine — it was best to keep moving.

I mention all this because this historic neighbourhood has gone through a sea change. The Iris Book Cafe where I pen this Gonzeaux episode is filled with cool books, used vinyl, quirky artsty-fartsy types looking at each other’s prints, and free wifi. It’s typical of what’s here now. I took a slow drive all around this hood and the signs of new life are everywhere: restaurants, shops, galleries, clothing shops, the new school for the Performing Arts, it feels a bit like Greenich village in NYC, except more authentic, and less over-commercialised, so far. Good thing, this neighbourhood has been a haven for crime, poverty and hopelessness for 50 years. Cincinnati’s relatively recent race riots started here. Kudo’s to the entrepreneurs, builders, the city, and the consumers who are creating this revival. Not sure if there was federal money involved here, but guessing there was.

There is also a very hip innovation “accelerator” about three blocks from where I sit. The Brandery, in essence, teaches people how to create a new venture, coaches, and for the right business plans, provides start-up funds, mentorship, and more. Brave of them to locate here, but it’s a bet that appears to be a good one as this area continues to improve. The Brandery is part of how Ohio digs out of it’s jobs hole — you train and help entrepreneurs start new businesses. There should be a Brandery in every major city in this state. I’m hoping I can somehow add KILN innovation process knowledge to The Brandery mix.

I’ve blogged about Cincy innovation before. As for Ohio Innovation, well, Ohio desperately needs to innovate. The industrial manufacturing base it once had has eroded, the economic balance it once had is largely gone (remember NCR? Moved to Georgia. Remember Cincinnati Milacron? Acquired by some Japanese company). There is great scientific research going on at Ohio State, Ohio University, Miami University, and the Univesity of Cincinnati, and, converting that academic knowledge to new business and economic growth has been, and still is, a challenge that’s not being well addressed. There are a few good news innovation stories in Ohio, like Over-the Rhine, but clearly not enough. The urban neighbourhoods in Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, to name a few, are all desperate places with large numbers of unemployed.

I wonder what Jeff Dyer, author of The Innovator’s DNA would suggest for these cities, and for organisations struggling to stay alive in them. I wonder what Phil Duncan of P&G, who lives in Cincinnati, would say…well, when I get to FEI 2012 in Orlando next week, I’ll ask.

Right now, off to visit The Brandery. Tomorrow, passing through Louisville on my way to Nashville.

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